BANGLADESH PRODUCES WORLD’S FIRST ALL-WOMEN UN PEACEKEEPING UNIT
A unique all-female unit of UN Peacekeepers has been working to bring greater safety and security to vulnerable communities in conflict-ridden Haiti. A 160-woman unit from Bangladesh — the first and still just one of three all-female units in the UN’s more than 100,000-person peacekeeping force — first traveled to Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The story of this inspiring group of determined women, who have been especially effective at reaching out to the women and children who are at particular risk for exploitation after conflicts or disasters, is now being told in a new documentary, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Geeta Gandbhir.
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, follows the 140 women who were a part of the unit’s third deployment to Haiti which lasted until June 2014.
Gandbhir says that they were particularly interested in telling this story because it “challenges stereotypes of South Asian women and particularly Muslim women… What you see in the film is that these Bangladeshi women are the breadwinners.
They go out from their traditional communities to leave the men at home with the children. It’s a role for women in that region that we haven’t heard much about and these women do it effectively. It’s important for everyone to see that.”
Peacekeepers fulfill a variety of roles, from disaster assistance to protecting civilians from conflict. But as Gandbhir points out, “[w]omen and children in conflict zones are an an extremely vulnerable population,” and even peacekeeping forces sometimes include people who take advantage of that vulnerability.
The presence of women within peacekeeping forces helps provide additional protection; the UN is actively working to increase the percentage of female peacekeepers, which currently stands at only 3%. “[W]omen tend to feel safe when they talk to other women about issues they might be having,” Ghandbhir notes, “particularly if there’s any sort of sexual abuse in their community or from anywhere.”
Most of the women in the Bangladeshi group were police officers at home, but Ghandbhir says that work as a peacekeeper provides “a route to self-empowerment” that goes beyond their career at home.
“The women make two to three times [more] as a peacekeeper compared to what they make as a police officer in Bangladesh,” she explains, but more importantly, “they’re the muscle of the mission,” so they feel their contribution has real value.
That empowerment — and the long months away on missions — can lead to conflicts with family, though. One woman in the film told Ghandbir, “When I got selected for the mission my husband was totally against of it.
He was very angry and he did not speak to me for a month and a half.”
The film follows the entire unit but focuses on three particular women, all of whom faced different challenges, both personal and professional, during their assignment to the UN Stabilizing Mission in Haiti.
It was a trial by fire, and the unit was criticized at first for being inexperienced and underprepared, but they emerged triumphant and ready to continue their work.
Mousumi Sultana, one of the women featured, captured the determination that every member of the unit embodies: “My family and my country, I see them as equals and I feel that I can move us forward as women if I go on this mission.”
SEPTEMBER 29, 2015